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‘At the whim of Amazon’ — after the pandemic, gig workers are getting organized – POLITICO

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This article is part of After Corona, a series exploring how the pandemic has changed the world.

The coronavirus pandemic may have caused the worst jobs crisis since the Great Depression. And yet, for the gig workers that so many businesses and consumers have come to rely on, it’s also provided an impetus for a new, global rights movement.

Even as restaurants closed their doors and production lines came to a halt across the world, many sectors in the platform-driven gig economy boomed. The freelance platform Upwork says it saw a 50 percent increase in sign-ups following the onset of the pandemic. The food delivery platform Uber Eats reported double the amount of orders last year.

But the sharp rise in demand — combined with the essential role gig workers played during lockdowns — also highlighted the precariousness that characterizes the industry.

“The pandemic has shed more light on the working conditions of platform workers,” observes Valerio de Stefano, a labor law professor at Belgium’s KU Leuven University. “Policymakers are more aware they need to be protected better, as many of them had no choice between working at high risk of being infected or starving.”

The fact that gig workers are classified as self-employed means they’re entitled to fewer labor rights than traditional employees. This renders them more susceptible to exploitation.

A report released last year showed that gig economy platforms weren’t compensating workers enough for lost income during the pandemic or offering sick pay, despite increased risks of infection for food delivery couriers and ride-hailing drivers.

“There are so many complaints from workers saying that the policies were really difficult to access, that they were simply not worth it. [Workers] would go pick up a mask, but they would need to drive halfway across the city [to do so],” said Funda Ustek-Spilda, the study’s co-author.

In Europe, the European Commission — the EU’s executive arm — launched a new initiative to bolster gig workers’ social protections and guarantee them further labor rights.

“Vulnerabilities regarding, for example, access to social protection and income stability have become even more visible,” reads the Commission’s proposal. “The pandemic has also resulted in some cases in increased health and safety risks due to the high exposure to the virus and lack of measures to protect platform workers.”

In an interview with POLITICO on the launch of the initiative in February, Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition and digital chief, addressed the protesting platform workers who had gathered outside the Commission headquarters in Brussels.

“You’ve got our attention,” she said. “And you have had it for a very long time.”

Turkopticon

There may be no platform that better epitomizes the gig economy than one of its earliest entrants: Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

Users sign up and log in to carry out online piecework tasks, usually for little money: 20 cents to carry out an audio transcription, for example, or a survey. At the site’s launch in 2005, former company CEO Jeff Bezos declared: “You’ve heard of software as a service, now you have human as a service.”

Sherry Stanley is one worker who has both found a source of income and cause for complaint in Mechanical Turk.

Six years ago, Stanley had no job and no means of transportation. Living in a small rural U.S. town “in the middle of the downturn of the coal mining industry,” job opportunities were thin on the ground, she said, and so she turned to Amazon’s gig platform.

Stanley recognizes the benefits of work that’s open to anyone with an internet connection. “I got to enjoy some of my children’s best moments growing up,” she said. “You can do it anywhere, and you don’t have to work a ‘normal’ schedule.”

But, she added, the tech giant does not provide its gig workers with enough support on how to best use the platform or against the possibility of exploitation by unscrupulous users.

“At first I thought of it as a way to just make a little money, but there really was no direction on how to perform the work,’ she said. “That’s when I had to use Google and trained myself to actually make MTurk work [as] a job.”

She said it’s easy for clients to reject completed work on the basis that it doesn’t meet their standards, which means workers aren’t paid for the hours they put in. The practice also stresses out workers, who have a “fear of account suspensions,” she said. Workers have “no transparency to know what causes [these] or what doesn’t,” she added.

Stanley is now the lead organizer of Turkopticon — an initiative to help support Mechanical Turk workers and lobby for better compensation and protections.

Turkopticon functions as an add-on for the Amazon Mechanical Turk site, allowing workers to easily view negative and positive reviews to filter out “shady employers.” The initiative claims to have successfully reinstated accounts terminated by Amazon and to be one of the “only lines of communication that MTurk workers have used to successfully reach Amazon.”

In March, Stanley launched a new fundraising campaign to support the website, help Turkopticon establish its own “worker-operated server” and aid in paying Mechanical Turk workers to “take time off work for one-on-one conversations” to build worker solidarity.

“We are at the whim of Amazon,” she said. “As one of the largest companies in the world, Amazon relies on workers like me staying silent about the conditions of our work.”

Amazon declined to comment.

Rising movement

Stanley is far from alone in campaigning for further protections for platform workers.

Over in the U.K., union organizers James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam have long been chasing after ride-hailing platform Uber, to force the company to treat its drivers as “workers” rather than independent contractors, guaranteeing them new social protections like a minimum wage and vacation pay. The pair won their case in February; Uber introduced more benefits for its drivers the following month.

A former Uber driver, Aslam said the pandemic pushed drivers to demand more from the likes of Uber when they realized they weren’t as protected as they’d like to be in their time of need.

“We saw a lot of people then, sort of, understanding that we do need these rights,” said Aslam. “What happens if we go off sick? What happens if we can’t work or someone dies or is injured? They started seeing the bigger picture.”

He said, at the height of the pandemic, some drivers reported working for 10 to 12 hours and earning about 50 pounds gross.

“That’s when you start realizing, ‘Actually, if I was [classified as] a worker, I would be getting paid a lot more.'”

Farrar and Aslam have seen an unprecedented rise in new union members over the past year. What’s more, new claims against Uber are springing up the world over, most recently in New Zealand.

Likewise, Amazon’s global workers’ movement — an informal network known as Amazon Workers International — picked up steam during the pandemic: Under increased pressure, the e-commerce giant introduced new so-called “process changes,” like staggered breaks and shifts to reduce infection risks in its warehouses, as well as a temporary €2-an-hour hazard pay bonus at the pandemic’s peak.

“The pandemic showed who are the important people in society,” Christian Krähling, a German worker from the town of Bad Hersfeld, told POLITICO last year. “Workers have the self-esteem to make demands. Before, nobody would have demanded €2 more.”

The tech giant went on to face the biggest union push in its history earlier this year, from workers at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the movement gained a tentative backer in U.S. President Joe Biden.

“Unions put power in the hands of workers,” Biden said in a video message during the height of the push, without mentioning the e-commerce giant by name. “They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice, for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment.”

There “should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda” from employers, he added.

“This is the most pro-union statement from a president in United States history,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, told POLITICO at the time.

A new unionization drive is now on the cards thanks to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union as well.

In other pro-platform-worker news, this year, Spain’s labor minister came forward with a new law that will force online delivery companies to employ their couriers, in a bid to improve their working conditions. The Commission’s initiative is slated for later this year: It’s looking into both legislative and non-legislative measures to “improve the working conditions of platform workers.”

Moving on up

The corporate world seems to have sensed the change in the air.

A report released last month by the Fairwork Foundation, an Oxford University-based research institute, again suggests online labor platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk and Upwork are failing to provide “basic” social protections to the workers who rely on them or safeguard workers against earning below minimum wage.

The report’s author Kelle Howson said she was “surprised” by how many platforms were willing to engage with Fairwork’s assessment. Some of them “put in the work to try to consider how they could better align with the Fairwork principles,” she said. The report cites Workana, a platform that implemented policy changes after speaking with Fairwork: Their workers now have the right to appeal account terminations, for example.

Howson added that platform sites like Amazon Mechanical Turk have the potential to be a positive thing for global labor markets — but only if the platforms improve working conditions.

“These digital forms [of work] actually help to level the playing field and to bring opportunities for participation and labor markets that weren’t previously available to a lot of people who have been marginalized from that kind of work,” she said.

“MTurk is not all bad,” said Turkopticon lead organizer Sherry Stanley. “We just need someone to listen.”

This article is produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers.



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Thom Brennaman has a new gig – and is making Nick Castellanos jokes

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Maybe Thom Brennaman should stick to his day job – now that he has one again.

The former Cincinnati Reds play-by-play announcer has landed a new gig after a hot-mic homophobic slur during what he thought was a commercial break cost him his job last August. Brennaman is joining Chatterbox Sports, a sports media outlet for high school sports in Southwest Ohio, as a play-by-play announcer.

The 57-year-old provided one of the most cringeworthy moments of 2020 when, as he attempted to apologize to the audience for the slur, he was interrupted by a home run from Nick Castellanos. The moment was painfully awkward for everyone involved and went ultra-viral, but after a year, Brennaman appears ready to make jokes about it.

“By the way, I think Castellanos hit a deep drive to left field,” Brennaman said in a video announcing him joining Chatterbox.

Brennaman was taken off the broadcast immediately after his August apology and was fired by FOX Sports soon after. He has since called games in the Roberto Clemente League in Puerto Rico.

Chatterbox president Trace Fowler said he strongly believes in second chances and wanted to give another opportunity to the announcer.

“Over the past two months, I have done a lot of research to see what kind of person he is; was the comment that he made, is that who he is, or is it just a mistake like all of us have made at some point?” Fowler said of the hiring.

Thom Brennaman in 2019.
Thom Brennaman in 2019.
AP

“And the conclusion that I’ve come up with, quite frankly, is that he’s a great person who made a mistake that I know he’s deeply regretful for. And we’re excited to allow him another opportunity to put a headset on again. And the biggest thing that I hope people take away from this is that we are not downplaying what was said, what people feel from that.”

Brennaman is a graduate of both Anderson High School in Cincinnati and Ohio University, so he is familiar with the area. After graduation, he began his career at WLWT – covering high school sports – before calling Reds games on TV with Hall of Famer Johnny Bench.

Since then, he has had stints with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs, and FOX Sports where he covered the MLB, NFL, and college football. He made his return to Cincinnati in 2006.

“I’m so grateful and excited,” Brennaman said of joining Chatterbox. “I grew up here in Greater Cincinnati. I know what high school football, high school basketball and high school sports mean to this area. This is what I was doing…when my career started. Here we are coming full circle getting back out to high school sports.”

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LeVar Burton: ‘Jeopardy!’ host gig began ‘scary,’ ended fun – New York Daily News

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Labor-For-Hire Company Struggling to Find Gig Workers Despite Hiking Wages

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  • Laborjack said it can’t find enough gig workers to meet soaring demand for its services.
  • The Colorado-based company boosted staff wages but said there’s huge competition for labor.
  • Clients are so desperate for labor that they’re no longer price-sensitive, its founders added.

A labor-for-hire company in Fort Collins, Colorado, says it’s missing out on huge chunks of revenue because it can’t find enough workers to take more jobs on.

Blake Craig and Josh Moser, founders of Laborjack, told Insider that more people had been applying to work at the company during 2021, but that it still wasn’t enough to meet the massive growth in demand for its services.

“Good help is hard to find,” Craig said. “And it’s even harder right now.”

Read more: These 9 food tech startups are capitalizing on the labor crunch with tools that help franchisees hire or automate the restaurant workforce

Laborjack staff doing landscaping work

Laborjack’s staff are mainly college students who do gig jobs in landscaping, moving, and general staffing.

Laborjack


Laborjack hires out labor to help with moving, landscaping, and general staffing — often to individuals who need extra help with projects.

“But right now, the bulk of our business is focused on helping other businesses that can’t get the staffing that they need,” Craig said. This includes delivery, brewing, and construction companies.

Around 80% of its workers are college students or recent graduates. But some of them have full-time jobs and use their gig work at Laborjack to supplement their income. During the pandemic, they’ve been working more hours at their main jobs and don’t need the side income anymore, Craig said.

In June, just over 200 workers completed a shift on Laborjack’s platform – but nearly a fifth of these only did one job.

This US is currently in the midst of a huge labor shortage that’s causing some businesses to cut operating hours, slash production, and raise prices. Joblist CEO Kevin Harrington told Insider that it’s primarily driven by people in entry-level, hourly-paid, and customer-facing jobs.

“Hiring had never been an issue for us until about February of this year,” Laborjack’s Craig said. “There’s a lot of other people going after the same talent that we are – not only new workers but also our existing workforce.”

“There are a lot of people fishing in a small pond,” he added.

The demand for Laborjack’s services roughly tripled over the past year, while the number of job applicants has increased by just a quarter, Craig said.

“We’re still struggling to keep up with the demand that’s coming in for the service we offer,” Moser said. 

This is despite Laborjack rolling out its biggest set of worker perks yet. This includes increasingly average payouts, made up of wages and on-job bonuses, to just over $26 an hour. The company is dishing out $75 hiring and referral bonuses if a new hire completes five jobs, too.

Businesses are ‘on the verge of desperation’

Laborjack has made its services more expensive to cover the higher wages. Moser said its clients had changed their pricing tolerance “drastically” over the past three months and were no longer price-sensitive.

“They just need to get people in the doors because otherwise their business will collapse,” Moser said. “They’re on the verge of desperation.”

Moser said that, for example, the event and trade show industry had rebounded massively with the reopening of the US economy. “They’re chomping at the bit for any amount of workers we can get them.”

Laborjack founders Blake Craig, Josh Moser

Laborjack’s founders say the tight labor market is holding them back.

Laborjack


Laborjack’s June revenue is up around 90% year-over-year, but “we could be growing more if there was more labor on the market,” Moser said. Laborjack is turning down jobs worth up to $2,500 each day and is struggling to balance its B2B and consumer sides, which are “both in full swing,” Moser said.

“Our margin has decreased despite the fact that we’re increasing prices, just because we’re trying to pay out all these bonuses,” Craig added.

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